Rated G - Running Time: 2:09 - Released 3/29/02

John Lee Hancock's The Rookie tells the true story of high school science teacher and baseball coach Jimmy Morris, whose lifelong dream of playing pro baseball finally came true in 1999 when he was drafted as a relief pitcher at the age of 35 by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. Morris, who had peaked as a minor league pitcher in the 1980s but was forced to retire early because of a shoulder injury, promised the Texas high school team he was coaching that if they made it to the state playoffs, he would try out for pro ball. When the kids won the regional playoffs, he dutifully fulfilled his end of the bargain, thinking he had no chance. But after the scouts saw his 98-MPH fast ball, they signed him on, to his and everyone else's disbelief. These are the events of Morris's autobiographical book The Oldest Rookie, adapted for the screen by Finding Forrester writer Mike Rich.

This movie wouldn't be nearly as good if it hadn't really happened: if it were fiction, it would be impossible to believe. It stars Dennis Quaid (after a lengthy prologue in which Morris is played as a boy by Trevor Morgan), and he does an admirable job in the role. Morris's wife is played adequately by Rachel Griffiths, and his young son by Angus T. Jones. But somehow this film isn't about the actors; it's about the amazing story, and director Hancock takes relish and a very leisurely pace in telling the tale. The film is really like two movies in one—the story of Morris's high school team is the first act, and it has all the ups and downs required, but then act two covers his pursuit and achievement of major-league status, a plot woven around the difficult relationship he has with his father and his desire to avoid the same result with his young son. I don't know if this father-son thing is an invented conflict, but it seems the weakest element, portraying navy officer Jim Morris Sr. (Brian Cox) as an unnecessarily mean father, morosely squashing his boy's hopes and dreams at every opportunity and never encouraging him until it's far too late. Jones, who plays Jim's son Hunter, is cute, but his job is mainly limited to giggling when his dad is pitching.

Normally when you hear of a movie rated G and produced by Walt Disney Pictures, you expect a cartoon or some dippy slapstick comedy. I think it shows a great deal of courage that The Rookie's producers decided to go with a G rating; there are no upbeat songs or talking animals, just a good movie that anyone can enjoy. The filmmakers could have added the foul language which is probably present in most sports locker rooms, and thereby scored a more lucrative PG-13 rating, but instead they wisely realized that this is a great story everyone should get a chance to see—a good family movie about someone achieving his dream.

The film is not perfect, however. In the desire to elevate the story to some sort of mythical status, writer Rich includes a silly and unnecessary legend about two nuns from long ago who, in hopes to strike oil, blessed the ground on which Jimmy now pitches. This does nothing for his story; what it does do is pad the already lengthy running time to over 2 hours, which is unfortunate given director Hancock's sometimes glacial pace and his unwillingness to edit. A little careful pruning could have resulted in a leaner film more suited to the attention span of your average youngster—some kids may get bored before the final reel has kicked in, especially if they are not baseball fans. But Quaid's performance is heartfelt, and Hancock and co. achieve the goal of bringing this amazing story to the screen with the honesty and simplicity it deserves. ****

Copyright 2002 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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